Technology: Mind/Machine Interface

“The Warrior’s bland acronym, MMI, obscures the true horror of this monstrosity. Its inventors promise a new era of genius, but meanwhile unscrupulous power brokers use its forcible installation to violate the sanctity of unwilling human minds. They are creating their own private army of demons.”

— Commissioner Pravin Lal, “Report on Human Rights”

Judging from the prerequisites, the true Mind/Machine Interface arises on Planet from the application of advanced Neural Grafting techniques to the problem space opened up by Doctrine: Air Power. This is why the technology is coded as a sixth-tier military technology even though it has some civilian applications. It turns out the militaries of Planet are on the cutting edge of cyborg technology. And Lal is not happy about that fact. At all.

But the gameplay effects of this technology are as profound as any of the other sixth-tier technologies, so it’s worth going into them for a moment before returning to the quote. The biggest benefit from MMI is that it unlocks the ‘copter chassis. This is an air unit, like a needlejet, that only has eight moves base instead of ten. But it has a couple of other capabilities that make it much, much better than your standard fixed-wing aircraft. First, it can remain on the map instead of returning home to an airbase at the cost of some HP. Which is nice, but pales in comparison to the second feature of ‘copters in SMAC: attacking does not end their turn!

Normally, when a unit engages in combat, its remaining movement points are set to zero. But ‘copters can keep attacking until they run out of moves. So just a couple of ‘copters can clean out a base of defenders. Basically the only thing that they can’t do is capture bases. Even a vacant base can only be occupied by a land unit (unless it is an ocean base, in which case a ship will suffice).

But MMI brings the solution to that problem as well, in the form of the Drop Pods special unit ability. This allows the creation of what would be paratroopers in other Civilization games: land units that can jump a long distance if they start in a base or airfield, because they’re presumably being carried by air units before their insertion. It is very possible to conquer an entire enemy faction with blinding speed using nothing more than drop troops and ‘copters.

And that’s not all. MMI also allows the creation of the Cyborg Factory, which is a secret project that serves as a free Bioenhancement Center in every base, as well as allowing the Thinker specialists. Thinkers are interesting because they obsolete the previous science-focused specialist type Librarians without actually being any better at generating labs. Instead, they’re better because each Thinker produces one unit of psych energy along with the three research energy.

So the upshot of all of this is that, from the player’s perspective, MMI is a wonderful technology. It does many lovely things. And yet the quote has Brother Lal, who had previously expressed his misgivings about Neural Grafting, declaring it to be a literal monstrosity.

This is a neat trick on Reynolds’s part. First, from this description, the player gets a sense of how extensive the MMI modifications must be. Everyone important seemed happy enough to get a computer chip in their brain a couple of tech levels ago. But now unscrupulous power brokers have to draft people for forcible upgrades? And Lal feels he has to call whatever comes out the other side an “army of demons” in an official report? So the quote provides the stuff of another dystopian sci-fi thriller in just a few sentences.

But it also does so in a way that implicates the player in all this. After all, the game makes the player really want this tech. Getting a new technological breakthrough is supposed to be a reward for playing well. But now there’s an edge to the gift.

This is the kind of impact that a narrative can only have if it is skillfully embedded in a video game. The act of playing a game – of thinking strategically with the goal of advancing the in-game avatar’s interests – naturally encourages a mindset in which he identifies personally with his in-game actions. “I built that base,” the player thinks. “I attacked that infantry unit with my rover.” Or “I researched that technology.”

And now, suddenly, the player is being invited to consider that his conscious decisions were implying countless horrors. Many players probably wouldn’t click the “create an army of demons” button, if there were one, unless they were curious to see what the game would do. Sometimes, people fire off the Planet Busters for the sheer joy of nuking the world. But though that trollish mindset can lead to lots of fun for the player, it is felt at a remove. It’s not the player really nuking the world because it’s not a real world. It’s all a game.

But the first time through the game, due to the way in which SMAC has encouraged the player to engage, he’s likely suspending his disbelief. He’s in there with the colonists, guiding over his chosen faction and trying to help them make the world a better place. And then he’s suddenly confronted with the fact that he was the one that made this possible. He’s responsible for it. And then the player is invited to start wondering what kind of future, exactly, is it that he’s building here on Planet?

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